When we are photographed, we compose and present ourselves to the camera, performing our identity and in that way becoming part of the discourse of photographic representation. The photo theorist Joanna Lowry states that “The mechanised timing of the photographic image undermines the process of self-representation: it is invariably too soon or too late.”[i] The question I would like to ask is: can the moving image portrait challenge what might be the objectifying power of photography and possibly breach the boundary between being and representation? Or even jolt the power balance between the photographer, the depicted, as well as the spectator? I sense that the moving image portrait gives the depicted a greater freedom to choose who they want to be and that that decision is not solely up to the photographer or the spectator. That the moving image portrait has no “before” or “after” but only a “now”, a “now” that, in some cases, can be extended to the spectator.
Let’s start by trying to define the moving image portrait. A moving image portrait often takes on the conventions of a still image portrait, that is, the subject poses as if for a studio photograph, meaning that the photographer uses a fixed camera position, placing the subject in the middle and in the foreground, keeping the environment and background out of focus, together with a close-fitting frame. However, in contrast to the still image portrait, the moving image portrait is extended in time, as it is filmed in anything from a few seconds to an hour or more, and thereby “refus[es] the resolution of the still image and preserv[es] the temporality of the pose.”[ii] I would suggest that the moving image portrait, by introducing the notion of duration, can be used as a way to change perspective, as well as changing our seeing and perception. I will get back to that.
One artist that exposes the politics of representation and personal identity is the visual artist Fiona Tan (b.1963, Indonesia, living in the Netherlands). Tan got her international breakthrough at Documenta 11 in 2002 with the video installation Countenance (2002). The work Countenance consists of over 200 portraits of Berlin residents at work or at home (image 1). The work operates within the territory of representation: “how we represent ourselves and the mechanisms that determine how we interpret the representation of others.”[iii] The work is a conscious reference to August Sander’s (1876–1964) systematic classification of a people through the photographic project People of the 20th Century. However, unlike Sanders, by highlighting the instability of identity, Tan “call[s] into question this very practice of general characterisation and the way we form notions of society as a whole.”[iv] Tan shifted her camera vertically, keeping the framing in dialogue with the conventions of portraiture. She filmed her subjects for around a minute, and “By extending the time of the portrait by just a few seconds [the subjects] expose the instability of the pose”.[v]
Tan’s subsequent work Corrections (2004) includes several hundred portraits of American prisoners and guards standing stationary (image 2). The work is displayed on six flat-panel screens, arranged in a circle; the configuration of the work is a deliberate reference to the panopticon. On speakers one hears the live sound recorded in the prisons whilst filming. The ambient sound amplifies a sense of place, but more importantly Tan creates a common space for the prisoners and guards, as well as the spectators, and thereby blurs the line between inside and outside, inclusion and exclusion.
Thomas Struth (b. 1954, West Germany) is another artist that has worked with moving image portraits. Between 1996 and 2003 Struth recorded the work Portraits – 1 Hour which consists of six large-scale video portraits that were projected onto hanging screens (image 3). Struth filmed “friends and colleagues gazing calmly at the camera […] they are steady and unmoving except for occasional blinks of the eyelids and other small, involuntary muscular events, and such subtleties as the fading of the day’s light, the gentle lift of a strand of hair in a passing breeze, and other initially imperceptible occurrences.” [vi] Unlike Tan’s work, Struth did not tilt the camera but kept it horizontal (with reference to the cinematic rather than to the conventions of portraiture). Also, Struth instructed his subjects to sit in front of the camera for a whole hour and shot close ups, showing only the heads and shoulders of the subjects and somewhat less of the settings.
Despite the similarities between Tan’s and Struth’s works there is a shift in the power balance due to the lengthy time Struth has instructed his subjects to stand still in front of the camera. Lowry suggests that by extending the time spent in front of the camera, Struth not only equalises the power balance between subject and spectator but reverses it. “[T]he spectator felt compelled to return the gaze, to watch back, but inevitably could not meet the challenge—was out-faced, and turned to move on to the next encounter uncomfortably aware of his or her irrelevance to the subject they had left behind.”[vii] Yet there is a risk that the power imbalance between the photographer and the subject overshadows any control the subject may have over us as spectators. Even if we are outfaced and turn away, the lasting impression might still be the subjects’ discomfort, their awkwardness.
The moving image portrait does not unconditionally challenge the objectifying power of photography per se. Nevertheless, by introducing the notion of duration, the instability of the pose is uncovered, and we, the spectators, become witness to the subject “becoming the sign: negotiating it, withdrawing from it, resisting it, [and] claiming it.”[viii] To me the clue lies in precisely this, that the moving image portraits are not fixed but elude me and my possibility to make any general characterisation, a capacity I find not that common in still image portraiture as the subjects are fixed in a pose and thereby, fixed in their account of themselves. My line of thinking is that the notion of movement is connected to control and agency, that the subjects are not passive in relation to the spectators, that unlike the still image portrait, the moving image portrait, stretched in time, allows the subject to compose and present themself over time, as if negotiating whether to be or become (a sign), and that the moving image portrait “test[s] the idea of the pose as a kind of performance.”[ix]
So let’s take a look at the preformative aspect of the moving image portrait. Compared to representation, performativity insists on a higher degree of engagement or action by its very nature. To cite the American feminist theorist Karen Barad: “Unlike representationalism, which positions us above or outside the world we allegedly merely reflect on, a performative account insists on understanding, thinking, observing and theorizing as practices of engagement with, and as part of, the world in which we have our being.” [x] Yet, the moving image portrait does not necessarily entail a higher degree of engagement or action by the photographer. In the moving image portrait one might even suppose that the performative act (the posing, the enactment, the movement/motion, etc.) is carried out by the subject alone, and not by the photographer, as the camera is usually placed on a tripod and neither the camera nor the photographer is moving. Nevertheless, I would claim that the act of the photographer moving away from their controlling position is performative.
That brings us to the notion of control. How control can be jolted in the moving image portrait? Trinh T. Minh-ha, the filmmaker, writer, and feminist/ postcolonial theorist, has introduced the concept of Speaking Nearby, which is a way of relating to the subject one is approaching. In short, by assuming that the person being addressed is standing next to you, you create space for them to respond.[xi] Letting go of the control, in this case, by introducing the notion of duration, could be a way of creating this space Trinh speaks of. The enactment of letting go of control changes not only the power balance between the subject and the photographer, but also the relation between the two is changed and even expanded to the spectator, making place for the “being” or “agency” of the subject.
One fundamental aspect of art is how it can create a common space and that I as a spectator, to some extent, have an ability to recognise how another human being thinks or feels. Burstow suggests that moving image portraiture gives prominence to “the originating demand placed by the artist on the subject and the demand placed by the subject’s performance on the viewer. This triangulation of demand holds the viewer at the intersection of self and other, an experience of intersubjectivity that displaces the search for the essential person lying behind the represented face.”[xii] In other words, I as a spectator “gain the insight that ‘the other’ is actually part of myself.”[xiii]
As a final note I would suggest that the strength of the moving image portrait lies in that it has no “before” or “after” but only a “now”. A “now” that puts focus on the meeting between the spectator and the subject, there and then, creating meaning and, by doing so, opening up the sense of a common experience.
We recognise that we are truly entangled.
Image 1: Fiona Tan, Countenance, 2002, https://fionatan.nl/project/countenance/
Image 2: Fiona Tan, Correction, installation view, 2004, https://fionatan.nl/project/correction/
Image 3: Thomas Struth, Portraits – 1 Hour, 1996- 2003, https://thomasstruth25.com/all/html/800_portrait.htm
[i] Joanna Lowry, ‘Portraits, Still Video Portraits and the Account of the Soul’, in Stillness and Time: Photography and the Moving Image(Brighton: Photoworks / Photoforum, 2006), 66.
[ii] Lowry, 69.
[iii] Michael Tacca, ‘Fiona Tan’s Moving Portraits’, MICHAEL TACCA, accessed 9 April 2020, http://www.michaeltacca.com/writings/2016/4/13/fiona-tans-moving-portraits.
[iv] Fiona Tan, ‘Documenta 11, 2002’, accessed 9 April 2020, https://fionatan.nl/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/D11.pdf.
[v] Lowry, ‘Portraits, Still Video Portraits and the Account of the Soul’, 73.
[vi] ‘Thomas Struth | The Metropolitan Museum of Art’, The Met, accessed 9 April 2020, https://www.metmuseum.org/press/exhibitions/2002/thomas-struth.
[vii] Joanna Lowry, ‘Projecting Symptoms’, in Screen/Space: The Projected Image in Contemporary Art, 1 edition (Manchester, UK ; New York: Manchester University Press, 2011), 105.
[viii] Lowry, ‘Portraits, Still Video Portraits and the Account of the Soul’, 72.
[ix] Lowry, 73.
[x] Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning, Second Printing edition (Durham: Duke University Press Books, 2007), 133.
[xi] Erika Balsom, ‘“There Is No Such Thing as Documentary”: An Interview with Trinh T. Minh-Ha’, Frieze 2018, no. 199 (December 2018), https://www.frieze.com/article/there-no-such-thing-documentary-interview-trinh-t-minh-ha.
[xii] Stephen Burstow, ‘This Face, Here, Now: Moving Image Portraiture’, 1 January 2017, 21, https://doi.org/10.5325/jasiapacipopcult.2.1.0073.
[xiii] Axel Karlsson Rixon, Queer Community through Photographic Acts : Three Entrances to an Artistic Research Project Approaching LGBTQIA Russia (Stockholm: Art and Theory Publishing, 2016), 128.